The Politics of the President's Wife

The Politics of the President's Wife

The Politics of the President's Wife

The Politics of the President's Wife

Synopsis

As the West Wing has grown in power and organizational complexity during the modern presidency, so has the East Wing, office home to the First Lady of the United States. This groundbreaking work by MaryAnne Borrelli offers both theoretical and substantive insight into behind-the-scenes developments from the time of Lou Henry Hoover to the unfolding tenure of Michelle Robinson Obama.
Political scientists and historians have recognized the personal influence the First Lady can exercise with her husband, and they have noted the moral, ethical, and sometimes policy leadership certain presidents' wives have offered. Nonetheless, scholars and commentators alike have treated the personal relationship and the professional relationship as overlapping.
Borrelli offers a compelling counter-perspective: that the president's wife exercises power intrinsic to her role within the administration. Like others within the presidency, she has sometimes presented the president's views to constituents and sometimes presented constituents' views to the president, thus taking on a representative function within the system. In mediating president-constituent relationships, she has given a historical and social frame to the presidency that has enhanced its symbolic representation; she has served as a gender role model, enriching descriptive representation in the executive branch; and she has participated in policy initiatives to strengthen an administration's substantive representation. These contributions have been controversial, as might be predicted for a gender outsider, but they have unquestionably made the First Lady a representative of and to the president and, by extension, the president's administration.

Excerpt

The wives of the modern presidents are complicated women. Their personalities defy easy categorization, their partisan and gender ideologies vary widely, and their ambitions cannot be readily discerned. Yet political science and gender studies are both dedicated to searching out the patterns that underlie apparently disparate phenomena and actors. and the intellectual resources of presidency and gender studies do reveal commonalities among the modern first ladies. They are singular, but they are not unique.

Among the roles and responsibilities that the first ladies have shared in common are those associated with representation. Encompassing and surpassing the duties of public outreach, representation requires an entrepreneur’s skill in communicating and in relationship building. Rather than simply restating or explaining the president’s words to the public, the first lady takes on the much more difficult and far riskier task of interpreting one to the other. She is called upon to clarify and calm, or to inspire and motivate, projecting a voicing of confidence, reason, and balance. Lady Bird (Claudia Alta) Taylor Johnson resolutely communicated the success of her husband’s domestic programs, for example, and Laura Welch Bush reached out to moderate voters in congressional midterm and presidential reelection campaigns. On other occasions, first ladies have been called upon to remind the people of more intangible ideals with national significance. Rosalynn Smith Carter’s decision to wear the gown she wore to her husband’s gubernatorial inaugural ball to his presidential inaugural ball was at once sentimental and populist in its frugality. Four years later, Nancy Davis Reagan signaled the glamour and elitism of presidential power with her designer gown, jewelry, and accessories.

Equally telling, when first ladies have not been accepted as representatives, they have had to find a way to reinstate themselves as interpreters and mediators. Eleanor Roosevelt, whose commitment to social justice led her to believe that the war effort would reverse the accomplishments of the New . . .

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